Soviet Naval Power Growing in Mediterranean; U.S. Position Weakening

The growth of Soviet naval power in the Mediterranean is being stressed by high ranking naval officers here who claim that by next year the United States would not be in a position to “face down” the Soviet Union should a new war develop in the Middle East. According to the officers, if a new Mideast war breaks out in mid-1972, they would have to advise the President on purely military grounds to let Israel be overrun by a joint Soviet-Egyptian attack. They said the defense of Israel would be complicated in a severe crisis because it would not involve NATO and America’s allies in central and southern Europe might be reluctant to get involved by giving permission for U. S. troop transports and combat planes to overfly their countries. The officers made a gloomy assessment of U.S. naval strength in the Mediterranean compared to Russia’s by the middle of next year, They noted that the Soviets now have naval bases in Egypt and Syria while the U.S. has lost all of its bases in the Middle East. Moreover, they claimed, the Sixth Fleet was smaller and older than in the past compared to the rapidly growing Soviet naval squadron in the Mediterranean. Ranking naval officers have expressed similar views in closed Congressional hearings over the Navy’s $21.8 billion fiscal 1972 budget. Observers here tend to view their pessimistic prognostications as a familiar ploy to extract larger appropriations from Congress.

Put there was no denying that Soviet sea power is building up rapidly in the Mediterranean and else-where and Moscow is making no secret of the build-up. Tass, the Soviet news agency, reported yesterday day on the week-end visit to the Soviet Mediterranean fleet by Defense Minister Andrei Grechko and Adm. Sergei G. Gorshkov, commander-in-chief of the Russian Navy. They were accompanied by high ranking government and Communist Party officials. More significant than the visit, according to observers, was the decision to give it maximum publicity. The decision seemed to emphasize the Soviet Union’s desire to convey to the U.S. and to Israel that a powerful Soviet military-naval presence is now a permanent factor in the Eastern Mediterranean. The size of the Soviet Mediterranean fleet varies from 40-70 ships, according to Western sources. It includes a dozen submarines and at least one helicopter carrier, the latter capable of landing marines in an amphibious strike. (Commander Abraham Botzer of the Israeli Navy said Friday that Israel’s fleet could prevent any attack from the sea but could not prevent hit-and-run raids. He said Israeli naval planners based their strategy on the assumption that Soviet advisers were “taking an active part in everything that goes on in the Egyptian Navy.” Botzer said a growing Soviet fleet was concentrated at Alexandria, Port Said and Mersa Matruh. The latter port, near the Libyan border, is becoming the main Soviet naval base in Egypt, Botzer said.)

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